Wave Rider

Jenny Schwietz (Photo by Erik Gaffron)

The first time Jenny Schwietz hit the cold water of Lake Superior north of Duluth with a surfboard, she caught a wave.

“I was pretty hooked right away,” says the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) student. “It was life changing. I saw a wave and thought I may as well try to catch it, even though it was literally the first wave that came my way. I stood up on the board and rode all the way in. I accidentally caught the first wave, and it was pure joy.”

That was six years ago. Today Schwietz, 24, owns eight surfboards and has become one of Lake Superior’s best-known year-round surfers. In addition to teaching surfing and water sports at the University’s outdoor program, she is working on a master’s degree in biology.

Schwietz takes any opportunity she can to try other waters, but Lake Superior is home.

“It’s like the ocean, but everything happens faster. In the ocean, you get a 15-second break between waves. In Superior, you get six or eight seconds. Then you add the cold factor. [You have to figure] out how to land without banging up your board,” she explains. “Those close waves can keep you underwater longer. You have to keep yourself calm. I calculate my risks. You have to put a lot of faith in yourself and your awareness.”

Schwietz estimates that she is one of four women who regularly ride Lake Superior. “More women are trying this. You have to stick with it. It’s a hard thing to try just once,” she explains. “It’s hard to plan for. The waves can be elusive.

There are hours of training before you get in the lake.”

The women in the UMD Surf Club outnumber the men two-to-one.

The UMD Surf Club is more than a decade old. Duluth finds itself a surfing destination. Schwietz’s surfing classes are packed with students, community members, and people who come from the Twin Cities or even further away. “Pro riders come and post their videos,” she says.

Schwietz spends more time on the water searching out new surfing breaks.

On calm days, she takes a stand-up board with her maps and scours shorelines.

“There are the good spots that everyone knows about. But there are even more good spots that nobody knows about. You have to look at shore profiles and depth profiles. You can kind of anticipate where the waves will be,” she says. “When the water is flat, I don’t mind doing the work to catch a wave.

In 2019, the lake froze over, interrupting the usual winter surfing. Schwietz, along with fellow surfers, anxiously watched the thaw. When open water returned, it included floating ice chunks. “But there are no sharks!” Schwietz says.